Demo reel for DenverDance.net

Its hard work creating “moving pictures”. There is a lot more involved than there is in photography. Some of my skills translate……and some dont. For one thing, don’t try and go “portrait” mode when shooting film. It just confuses people. I do really enjoy the craft though and even though I have some ways to go to be creating those fancy Hollywood style movies, I feel good about my progress. This reel was the result of me getting my experience leveled up ( ding ) as well as getting some content for my own reel.

I DONT WANT TO GET OFF ON A RANT BUT…

This reel was filmed on…..wait. I may digress a little, so feel free to skip this. Do we still say “filmed”? Are we “filmmakers?” I am not sure, but perhaps with this HDSLR revolution, we may have to coin a new term. Feature “films” are being created with these things and the industry is morphing into a new era of creation. We have tools that can potentially level the playing field between the giant crews and giant budgets of the folks in southern California and little people like me. With the hardware more accessible ( thanks Home Depot and high watt light sources ) the key area that separates us from the big guys is how a story is told and how good the story is. In photography, I have always been told by beginners that they don’t have the “best” camera or the “greatest” lights. I hate that “limitation” ( sorry for all the quotes ). Some of my favorite pieces were done with 2 AlienBees and a Nikon D70 popped with the camera popup flash. The point is, the Canon 5D MII may have been a game changer, but to me it is going to help separate the good story tellers from the technicians. Now, anyone can get that film look with the right amount of money, but the key is how are you going to use this tool to create a great story.

I NEED AN EXCUSE TO USE THIS FANCY NEW TOY

Ok, end the rant, here we go back to the story of this reel. I had just received my Canon 5D with the 24-70 L lens and my girlfriend ( who is the proprietor of Denver Dance ….and is probably in every video I have created ) agreed to let me create a reel for her. We had planned on heading to my studio ( which is my photography studio ) to do some test shots and just have some fun playing around, but ended up shooting all the footage and edited that day. During the prior week, we bought a song from Premium Beat and Marguerite spent a few days visualizing some moves ( I have no idea how she can come up with routines just in her head ) so that we had something to shoot when we got to the studio.

AND HERE…WE..GO

The agenda for the reel was to represent all the styles of dance she was offering: hip hop, tap, and pole. Yeah its a crazy combination, but this girl is talented and can do them all and is a really great teacher. My studio at Blue Silo in the RiNo Art District has a cool warehouse look to it so I thought it would go well…except for pole….but we will get to that.

ITS NOT THE SIZE OF THE EQUIPMENT LIST

The equipment I had to work with were: a camera, a skateboard, some fluorescent lights(2), a 1000w light source ( with no modifier because I couldn’t get the softbox together ) and a tripod ( photography…no fluid head, ball leveling ones that should be used ), and a 24 inch lcd tv that I connected the Canon 5D to for focus and playback. I had no crew, no help, nothing. It was her and I and a mission from…well I don’t think God had much play in this. I was on my own.

HIP HOP AND YOU DONT STOP

The first part to shoot was hip hop. I started off with some locked down shots on the tripod and had her dance a few times. The more I watched the playback, the more I disliked what I was seeing. She was doing great, but I was treating the footage as I did with stills..How can you have a demo reel of fast movements in a locked down way? I had to make every shot feel like it was moving. Great. I am very unsteady and all I had was a skateboard. I kept thinking After Effects would help me stabilize my shake in post….more on that later. So, the movement shots were to do a “dolly” shot, some edgy zooming effects ( I keep thinking of exaggerated quick zooms like in the Battlestar Galactica series ) and then circle around her as she danced. First up: the skateboard. Now, this was tough. I didn’t have a flat surface to roll the thing on so it was bumpy. I had no choice though so I did a few dolly shots with that. Next up, I did some handheld shots. Moving in and out trying to get some quick shots that I could cut to later. My technique for focusing is not very scientific and is probably not standard practice in compactflashmaking ( yes I am coining a phrase here ). I hold the camera, focus in 10x zoom and then go. I don’t have a viewfinder eye piece yet so I do it by eye or through the LCD TV connected via HDMI. The final part was to walk around Marguerite as she danced trying to keep a steady shot as well as making sure my distance to her was constant. With her distance constant, the focus should be good. I believe I was shooting at 2.8 so it was not as bad as if using the 85mm L lens at 1.2 ( did that in my short film…yikes! ). The last shot I thought of at the end was to do a wide shot. I was just trying to get coverage that I can use in editing.

LET THERE BE LIGHT…OF ALL KINDS

The studio has a lot of light during the day. The biggest issue I was facing was it was a partly cloudy ( or partly sunny depending on how you like to look at it ) so color balance was difficult. Each scene had a different color and would change by the minute as the clouds rolled through. The studio has a tough color to work with as it is ( we painted the walls grey just to help control the light ) so my post would be fun. I actually corrected it pretty well I thought as the hip hop scenes were all different. Curves adjustment in Premiere Pro was a gift from the gods.

TAPA TAPA TAPA

The next step was to film the tap scenes. We tried to shoot in the hallways of the studio building, but a) her tapping was super loud and I was afraid of disturbing the other tenants and b) it was just not giving me a look I wanted. I remembered the outdoor location where we shot some stills for her site and thought the giant buildings as a backdrop would be a great spot. At this point, it was overcast, windy, and pretty bright. It was close to raining too, but we got lucky. To avoid the “camcorder” look, I had to open the lens up, but with this bright overcast day, it was not happening. In comes the ND filters. I just bought a .3 and a .9 filter and I had to use both just to get the light out. I was worried about vignetting, but I, again, got lucky. For this scene I wanted to get some shots of her feet, some of her just tapping, and then some movement shots…again walking around and just some handheld stuff. I knew I was asking for trouble with all the movement shots, but I couldn’t do these types of shots on a tripod. It would just not look right. I watch all the DIY dolly, jib, steadicam builds on the “tubes” but I had none of that with me. I also had no help with this shoot so I had to make do with what I had. At the end of the tap scenes, it started to rain so we got lucky. Marguerite also busted her shoes. Apparently cement is really bad for tap shoes and knees, but sometimes you just have to suffer for your art.

NO CRAFT SERVICES?

We broke for the day, went back to her house to upload the footage on my Macbook Pro ( which has Premiere Pro CS5 ). We had plans to meet our friends at Yak and Yeti ( Indian cuisine ), but we had a couple hours to spare so I uploaded what I had and organized it all. My approach was to put the footage into bins marked by the different dance styles. There was no audio except for the soundtrack so that was easy to handle. I did not delete the card’s content just in case ( backup is always on my mind ).

YOU CAN POLE ANYWHERE….APPERENTLY

After dinner and some reluctance on my part, we decided to shoot the pole scenes. Marguerite has a “portable” pole so we set it up outside the studio facing the blue silos ( hence the name of the location ). It was a full moon out so it was perfect to have it in the shots. I had the 2 fluorescent lights, which I placed on the ground facing the pole and the 1000w bare light raised up and pointed down at her. The mosquitos and gnats were swarming, but again, we must suffer for our craft! We didn’t sandbag the pole stage so Marguerite was a little worried that it would tip during her moves and the pole was not super dry so slippage was an issue. It took many tries and after a while the moon was too high up in the sky to include it in the background so the best I could get was the lights at the silo. I didn’t want a black background so I had to raise up the ISO to get some sort of background, but even then the lights and background were dim.

EDIT ( edited down by author )

It was close to midnight when we finished, packed up, and drove home. I uploaded the rest of the footage and we actually put together the rough cut that night. So, everything was done and ready for post for when I got home the next day where I could do the color grading, and After Effects work on the Mac Pro. I have to say though, Premiere Pro on my Macbook Pro handled really well with all the footage from the Canon 5D. I had very little delay, which was how I was able to get the edit done that night.

FIXING MY MISTAKES…aka POST PROCESSING

Over the next couple of days ( I do have a day job so I didn’t have 100% of my time to get this done ) I spent fine tuning the edit. I did my color grading next to make sure the footage looked consistent enough so that when I jumped from scenes it would not look too bad. One part of the reel that I was not happy with was the pole. I didn’t like shooting at night because there was too much black in the background. When I was shooting it, I knew I wanted to throw in some effects to help that out so in comes Optical Flares from Video Copilot. I had this plug in for a while, but never used it. It was fairly straight forward to figure out, but the difficult part was making it track to the existing lights in the scene. The jumpiness of the footage made motion tracking difficult so I had to do it by hand, but even then it was not always working the best. I keyframed the lights and made the flares match the color of the light source.

The most challenging part was smoothing the shaky footage. The opening scene was the most difficult. there was no good tracker points to work with so that was really not going to happen. I did my best, but in the end, the footage was going to be shaky. The scene with the skateboard “dolly” shot was also not working as well. But for a crew of 1 and no equipment, I think I did pretty good for shooting and editing in 1 day.

POST MORTUM

What did I learn from this experience? Obviously, I need to get smoother motion. This hand held stuff is not the way to go. I need to hit the net and at least build some sort of dolly. There is no way I can get away with this on a shoot for a client. Second, help is good. I asked around, but the usual suspects were not available so that part I had no choice with, but having someone help pull focus or at least cue the music would have been nice. Also Final Effects is not the answer to bad footage repair. It does do amazing things, but in the end, getting it in camera is key. I knew this before, but I think this post is a good example of why. Get it in camera. I was lucky in this shoot because I had a vision in my head and Marguerite had the dance moves ready, but getting the shot list down is vital. With that, get coverage. Don’t just shoot the main scenes. Shoot things that you don’t think is vital, like the dancers feet as she dances, or wide angle shots, etc. Giving yourself options in the edit process is really helpful. Shoot different angles of the same thing so you can cut to different shots ( if there was a mistake this really helps ). The scene where she is dancing and the shot blurs out was just an experiment by me, but turned out to be a great transition shot. I also had her do a take where she just finishes a move and walks away. She thought it was silly, but in my head I knew it would be a good way to end the reel. Digital compackFlashmaking is free. Space is your only enemy so shoot until your cards are full. Having a shot list, and even a storyboard would really make things work out great. Before every shoot ( in photography and now in compactflashmaking ) I scout locations, think about how a shot would work, where the camera will be facing before I ever shoot something. I have to visualize a scene before I can shoot it. Take some pics ( use your phone if you have to ), test angles, get on a ladder, lay on the ground, do anything to make a shot more interesting. Think of why you are shooting a scene instead of just shooting it. Sure I did a dance reel and there is no motivation, but I knew the flow and movement I needed before I yelled action.

I hope this short novel of a post helps you out at least a fraction as it helped me. If there is anything I left out that you feel would help you understand the process better, leave a note or email me at mel@denverlightingcompany.com.

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